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Trouble spots on Hwy 71/23 may receive makeover

WILLMAR -- Plans are in the works to improve a 3½-mile stretch of Highway 71/23 north of Willmar by eliminating a half-dozen access points and constructing one to three new interchanges.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has completed a draft scoping document that examines alternatives for improving the common section of road that includes U.S. Highway 71 and state Highway 23. The corridor extends from where Highway 71/23 intersects with Business Highway 71 near Swan Lake to where Highways 71 and 23 split in Dovre Township.

The goal is to reduce access points, improve safety and accommodate expected commercial and residential growth, according to Lowell Flaten, project manager from MnDOT.

A public hearing on the Highway 71/23 project will be July 17 at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building.

Depending on funding, the construction is expected to begin in 2012 but could possibly begin as early as 2010.

There's a lot of work to be done in between then and now, including an environmental impact statement that will be completed in the fall of 2007 and acquisition of right of way in 2009.

"We're really early in the process," said Flaten. He said it's a good time for people to know about the project and get involved. There will be opportunities for public input along the way. MnDOT met last week with about 50 Eagle Lake residents. The input there included differing opinions about what improvements, if any, should be made, Flaten said.

The only consensus was that they didn't want more traffic on the lake road.

One of the key areas that are being examined is County Road 90, which crosses Highway 71/23 at a right angle. It's a popular route for Willmar High School students and some Eagle Lake residents but is not considered a safe intersection because it's too close to the bypass where traffic is shifting lanes at a high rate of speed.

As Willmar grows and the traffic volume increases, Flaten said the chance for accidents will increase in these areas. He identified the County Road 90 intersection as the priority area on the route to be changed to improve safety.

MnDOT is considering alternatives like closing the intersection, running the road over the highway as a bridge or constructing an interchange farther north of the existing intersection.

Another area under review is County Road 25, which is an access point to Highway 71/23 near the middle of Eagle Lake. The preliminary plans call for constructing some sort of an interchange there.

Bob Whitney, owner of Whitney Music, told the Kandiyohi County Planning Commission last week that his property may be needed for the highway project, which could affect plans to expand his business.

The Planning Commission, as well as the County Board, approved Whitney's request to rezone the property from residential to commercial so that he could consider leasing his building if he decides to build elsewhere to accommodate his growing business. He previously obtained a conditional use permit to operate the business.

A third area is just north of Point Lake near the north end of Eagle Lake. An access could be closed there, with a new bridge or intersection constructed to bring traffic to the Long Lake area. Another option is to build a frontage road along Point Lake, said Flaten.

He said traffic lights are not being considered for anywhere on the project.

The draft scoping document will help MnDOT narrow down the alternatives that will be studied in depth in an environmental impact statement. He said MnDOT is choosing to do an environmental impact statement at the beginning of the process to study a "broader range of alternatives" for the project. An environmental impact statement was not done for the 11-mile Highway 23 project through Spicer. A number of residents there had asked for the in-depth environmental study.

Flaten said doing an environmental impact statement now "may be a smoother process" than the Spicer project, which drew objections from residents on a number of fronts.

When completed, Flaten said the Highway 71/23 project will tie in nicely with the four-lane expansion through Spicer and New London.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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